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BOSTON -- Martha Elliott started to catch on through her bank's home page. Each time she logged on, the home page included images of African-Americans. 

Elliott is African-American.

"I didn't like it. I like diversity," the technologist told CMSWire today at the 700-registrant Gilbane Conference at the Boston Renaissance Marriott Hotel. "I want a bank that's diverse."

Instead, she got some back-end personalization she felt was "disingenuous." Pretty much the opposite of personalization, right?

Personalization Gone Bad

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Personalization technology was a focal point here today. Know thy customer. Know their desires. Make customers like Martha Elliott happy.

All that.

Panelist Scott Liewehr, president and principal analyst for New York City-based Digital Clarity Group, said in a keynote this morning that with personalization, there are "so many downsides to doing it wrong."

"This personalization nirvana, this Holy Grail," he said, "is not something I think we should be seeking."

In an interview post-keynote with CMSWire, Liewehr said he's not suggesting personalization is bad. But it can be bad if overdone. "The more personalization the better -- I don't think those two correlate," he told CMSWire. "How many times do you just want to browse and you end up in a very different place than you started? Just because I bought a pony doll for my 8-year-old daughter does not make me an 8-year-old girl."

Still About the Humans

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Some Gilbane Conference attendees stand by personalization's technology. 

Jeff Cram, chief strategy officer at ISITE Design, a Boston digital experience agency and content management consultancy, told CMSWire personalization "is near and dear" to him and his team. He called it a "business critical concept and capability."

"But," he added, "we have to stop letting it be defined as a technology objective and start thinking of it as a human objective. Technology needs to enable the customer experience agenda not define it." 

What components come with successful personalization? Namely, Cram said, customer research, experience design, content strategy and analytics. 

"Instead of saying personalization is dead," Cram said, "there's a bigger opportunity to use the excitement around personalization as a proxy for design thinking and experience strategy at a higher level in the business. We've seen many organizations turn this corner with amazing the outcomes for both the business and the customer."

Been There, Done That

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Good personalization has been proven, according to Jake DiMare, digital strategist for Boston-based Agency Oasis. He cited Google, Amazon and Virgin Airlines where "the results are undeniably powerful."

"As a consumer of their products and services," he said, "they make my life easier." But for enterprises?

"The problem is, getting there as an organization is not only complex, it's a lot of work," DiMare added. "The biggest hazard is failing to understand how much work is going to be involved and believing technology is going to be a magic wand."

One opportunity for marketers lies in what DiMare called the standard measures: "When well executed, the delivery of personalized digital experiences will harvest more qualified, more informed, and more excited leads in B2B. For B2C, there are benefits as well, but personalization is or will be a baseline expectation depending on the industry."

'Trying Too Hard'

Martha Elliott's bank experience pretty much summed it up for us. It's technology that can be great for customers and prospects -- but only if it's done right.

The tools are there to make things personalized, but knowing what that means for each customer is about execution. For Martha Elliott's bank, that means something other than pictures of people on a home page. 

"They were trying too hard," Elliott told CMSWire of her bank website experience. "If you want to personalize something, personalize some information that I can use."